Lee County tax rate could increase 1.4 mills | POLL

Funding would be used for road work, maintenance, fire protection

Lee County Commissioners discussing the budget Tuesday night were, from left, Rick Muggridge, Dennis Roland, Luke Singletary, Greg Frich and Ed Duffy. (Staff Photo: Danny Carter)

Lee County Commissioners discussing the budget Tuesday night were, from left, Rick Muggridge, Dennis Roland, Luke Singletary, Greg Frich and Ed Duffy. (Staff Photo: Danny Carter)

LEESBURG — For the first time in eight years, Lee County commissioners are considering an operating budget that would likely require an increase in the millage rate.

Commissioners are expected to vote on a $23.45 million spending plan on June 24, a plan that may require a 1.44-mill tax increase. Members of the Lee County Board of Education have already approved a 2.5-mill tax increase this year.

The tax hike, according to Commission Chairman Rick Muggridge, is necessary partly because the commission in recent years delayed paying for maintenance and equipment purchases “as we went through a significant downturn in the economy.”

If approved, the new budget will include $450,000 for road resurfacing.

“We’ve never used general funding for resurfacing,”said Muggridge. “We’ve always have state funding and other funds that just aren’t there any more. … This money would be earmarked for resurfacing. Lover’s Lane would be my preference right off the bat because of the traffic … resurfacing and maybe widening it by two feet.”

Money the commission expected to use for resurfacing this year was instead allocated to pave the Westover Boulevard extension project from Ledo Road to Fussell Road.

Another $172,000 in new spending would be spent for building maintenance, Muggridge said.

“We’ve had a couple of building mold issues and roof issues, plus we have 16 HVAC units that need replacing today,” he said.

The budget increase would allow for two new deputies for the Lee County Sheriff’s Department. Vehicles for the two new deputies would be financed with special-purpose local-option sales tax funds.

The sheriff’s deputies are needed, in part, because Smithville no longer has a police department. Patrol duties and protection has been added to the responsibility of the Sheriff’s Department. Muggridge said he is hopeful the additional positions will reduce the amount of overtime in the Sheriff’s Department.

“I hope so,” Muggridge said. “We anticipate working with the sheriff a lot closer and am optimistic about next year,” he said. “The sheriff (Reggie Rachels) has been incredibly willing to hear from us and work with us.”

Fire protection also would benefit from the additional tax revenue. Included is $52,000 for a new training officer and $44,000 to create a volunteer firefighting force.

‘“This will be a seed program we hopefully will replicate all over the county, but we’re going to start in Redbone,” he said. “We hope to have 12 volunteers there.”

Funds also are included to buy 15 sets of “turnout gear,” which is required for each certified firefighter.

The proposed spending plan does not include any cost-of-living or merit pay increases for county staffers.

“That’s the one thing I regret,” Muggridge said. “Maybe we can revisit as we see how thing percolate in January. … That’s something I will give a great deal of thought about in the next two weeks.”

The commission did agree, however, to grant a $1 per hour pay hike for the firefighters and EMS personnel who have gone through training to gain dual certification in each area of responsibility. Numerous EMS staffers have become certified firefighters in recent months.

While no pay raises were approved, Lee County workers benefit from a longevity program that provides a 1 percent pay increase for each three years of service.

The County Commission conducted a public hearing on the budget during Tuesday night’s regular work session. Bill Williams, a CPA and former county commissioner who lost his seat to Commissioner Greg Frich, was the only person to speak at the public hearing. Frich has taken an active role in budget committee hearings.

“I wish you would rethink the proposed budget which includes a 1.4 millage rate increase,” said Williams, who took a leadership role in formulating the budget while he served on the commission.

“I’ve gone over this and am convinced it can be done without a tax increase,” he said. “I don’t think you have a revenue problem, you have an expense problem.”

Williams noted the budget has gone from $20.89 million in 2012 when he left the commission to $23.45 million for the coming Fiscal Year 2015 — a $2.56 million increase.

Williams was critical of Frich and others who participated in developing the upcoming spending plan.

“I know it can be balanced,’ Williams said. “Do your homework and have a plan before entering the budget workshop sessions. The budget committee has no plan or has not done any homework. It appears it’s mostly about trying to educate the budget committee on finances. I feel this is not the place for on-the-job training.”

“Do not take the easy way out and raise taxes. We’ve gone through the really tough times without raising taxes. Why do we have to now?”

Williams also was critical of not including employees with a pay raise while the commission included a $10,000 pay increase for City Manger Ron Rabun.

Frich later clarified Rabun’s salary situation, noting that Rabun’s salary was raised, but he is losing a $12,000 expense allocation, resulting in a net loss of $2,000 per year.

Commissioner Ed Duffy indicated he likely will not vote for the tax increase. He said the county has about $800,000 more in revenue than expenses as the current budget year comes to an end. Duffy suggested financing the needed items with that money, in addition to using some of the county’s reserve fund.

Rabun said that $800,000 fund balance likely will not be there at the end of the year when all expenses are paid.

Commissioner Luke Singletary said some equipment and maintenance issues have reached a critical point because of a reluctance to act in the past. Frich agreed.

“This can has been kicked down the road before, and there is a price to pay,” Frich said. “We’ve got 62 vehicles in the sheriff’s office and they all have at least 180,000 miles on them. We’ve got some significant challenges that have to be addressed.”

Rabun said it’s been eight years since the last tax hike. The rate, he said, was 15.95 mills in 2005, but was dropped to 12.76 mills in 2006, where it has remained since. Each mill generates $906,905 in revenue, he said.

The county’s tax digest may not be available until July. While the county is expected to approve the budget on June 24, the millage rate requires public hearings after the tax digest is determined. Adoption of the rate may not happen until August, Rabun said.

Growth in the tax digest could reduce the actual amount of the millage increase, Muggridge said. If the current plan stands, the county rate would go to 14.20 mills.